Wednesday

22nd Mar 2017

Police can probe asylum fingerprints, commission says

  • Den Heijer: 'The proposal would effectively transform all asylum seekers whose data is stored into criminal suspects' (Photo: EU's attempts)

The European Commission on Wednesday (30 May) proposed to allow law enforcement authorities access to Eurodac, a biometric database of asylum seekers.

Set up in 2003, the database is a repository of asylum seeker fingerprints and is used to speed up asylum procedures and prevent people from making simultaneous claims in multiple member states.

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Member state law enforcement authorities would be able to request the comparison of fingerprint data with those already stored in the Eurodac central database, but under strict conditions.

Police would only be allowed access in specific cases should they require information on a person suspected of terrorism or some other serious crime.

The query would provide a hit/no hit result. Should the result turn up positive, then the authority can request the member state to provide the personal details of the suspect.

EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said in a statement released on Wednesday (30 May), that “robust safeguards have been introduced” to ensure that the right to asylum is not in any way adversely affected.

'Asylum seekers are not criminals'

But Melita Sunjic, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Brussels, told EUobserver that law enforcement access to the database would equate asylum seekers with criminality.

Sunjic also expressed concerns that law enforcement authorities may alert the asylum seeker’s country of origin. Such alerts could possibly jeopardise the lives of the asylum seeker and his or her family members still in the home country.

“People leave their home country because they are in danger there,” said Sunjic.

The Commission has yet to release the full details of the proposal but a memo claims the provisions would prohibit authorities from sharing any information with “third countries, organisations, or entities.”

A similar proposal was already tabled by the Commission in 2009 but was quickly shot down the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) and the Meijers Committee, a group of experts on international immigration, refugee and criminal law.

Like the latest reiteration, the 2009 proposal also wanted to grant police access to the database, enabling them to request the data from the member state on the basis of returned negative results.

The fingerprint comparison would also only have been done in specific cases. The consultation of data stored on Eurodac would also have had to contribute to the prevention, detection, or investigation of terrorist offences and of other serious criminal offences.

The 2009 proposal also said authorities would not be able to share the information with a “third country, international organisation or a private entity established in or outside the EU.”

But the Commission’s proposal then included an exception allowing member states to transfer the data to Norway, Iceland and Switzerland which are not bound by the EU directives on personal data.

Dr Maarten den Heijer, a member of the Meijers Committee and assistant professor of international law at the University of Amsterdam, told EUobserver that the latest proposal’s conflicts with the presumption of innocence and risks stigmatising asylum seekers.

“The proposal would effectively transform all asylum seekers whose data is stored into criminal suspects and it will, indeed, increase the chance of prosecution of asylum seekers solely on the basis that they have once lodged an asylum claim somewhere,” said Dr den Heijer.

Furthermore, Dr den Heijer argues the proposal would violate a data protection principle of ‘purpose limitation’ which holds that stored personal data may only be used for the purpose it was initially collected for.

He cited a case brought against Germany by an Austrian national at the European Court of Justice in 2008 which ruled that a system for processing personal data specific to foreign nationals for the purpose of fighting crime is not permissible.

Meanwhile, Peter Hustinx, the European data protection supervisor, had also expressed serious doubts about the legitimacy of the Commission’s proposed measures in 2009.

The supervisor at the time said the Commission had failed to demonstrate the necessity and proportionality of the proposals which are “both crucial elements to legitimate privacy intrusion”.

EU data protection chief criticises fingerprint plan

EU plans regulating the issuing of passports and creating a centralised fingerprints database do not sufficiently protect the rights of citizens, the head of the bloc's privacy watchdog has said.

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The 22 March anniversary of the Brussels bombing will trigger a lot of soul searching. But EU counter-terrorism strategies over the past 10 years have been crisis-driven with little follow through or oversight.

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